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Mindfulness and Mental Health

Pay attention. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Sit still. Focus.

How do you feel when you read off that list of commands? Do you hear a familiar voice in your head speaking those messages? Does it bring up any memories? Can you recall a time that one of those statements was asked of you?

At some point in our lives we have probably heard one, if not all, of the directives above. Perhaps they were spoken to us by a parent, teacher or other authority figure. While the intent may have been to encourage, depending on the tone, they could have missed the mark and come off sounding harsh, reprimanding or maybe even condescending.

These phrases have been spoken for decades or longer, as almost a code of conduct, for children, particularly in realm of education. We can probably agree that they are viewed as expectations for a successful learning environment. We often tell children to pay attention, focus or calm down without showing them how to do any of those things. Without the tools, the desired result is not often obtained and both parties are left feeling frustrated, upset and maybe even resentful. Those negative feelings can lead to more serious concerns regarding mental health and overall well-being.

Let’s consider what could happen if these statements were requested through the lens of mindfulness.

Mindfulness, by definition is the practice of purposely bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, a skill one develops through meditation or other training. When we are mindful, we are paying attention to what is happening right now. We aren’t worried about what has happened before or what may happen later. When are minds are cluttered with other thoughts it is difficult to focus. The anxiety of all those thoughts can make its way into the and manifest. This can make it challenging for the person experiencing the anxiety to calm down and even more difficult to sit still. The feelings of tension and tightness may even make the individual feel restricted, therefore presenting a hurdle to even the simple act of taking a deep breath.

The statistics around mental health diagnosis, such as anxiety and depression, are consistently climbing. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America the number of children, between the ages of 13-18. reported to be affected by anxiety disorders is 25.1%, over a quarter of the population. If left untreated research shows that children with anxiety disorders are more likely to miss out on important social experiences, are at a higher risk for poor school performance and more likely to engage in substance abuse.

Research has shown that mindfulness helps to reduce anxiety and depression by teaching us how to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment. When we are in the present moment it makes worrying and ruminating about the past and future much more difficult to do. Therefore, decreasing the stress that is put on the body simply by lessening the number of problematic situations the mind is creating. The mind likes to be busy, that is its job. It also likes to problem solve. Furthermore, it believes what we tell it. If we are creating what if’s in the mind, problems, for the mind to solve, the mind goes into fight or flight mode to protect itself from these stressors. It does not know, nor does it care, if they are real or imagined. It aims to keep us safe. When we are in that state, we feel stressed. Our body reacts physically through a quickened heart rate, rapid breathing and increased blood pressure, among other adverse effects. The more often this happens the deeper the grove in the brain where this habit is formed and the more frequent and severe the feelings of stress in the body become. The more constant the stress and strain on the nervous, the more likely a person is to experience anxiety or other forms of mental health challenges.

What if we taught our children and students how to use mindfulness as a way to cope with the constant demands for their attention. What if we were able to teach them how mindfulness can be used to hone in on the present moment. Mindfulness can teach us how to respond to stress with that present moment awareness, rather than simple acting, unaware of what deeper rooted emotion or motive is driving us toward a particular decision. Mindfulness training offers the opportunity to teach breathwork. The process and skill of using your own body to help self-regulate, to calm your own nervous system with something as simple as an intentional pause to breath and be in our bodies. As a result, the ability to calm down, sit still and focus is strengthened.

The answer is simple, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily easy. Mindfulness is a practice. It is like a workout for your brain and nervous system. Just as we as told getting regular exercise and eating healthy is important for our physical body, practicing mindfulness is important for our mental health. Mental health is health. Building the brain muscle is just as important, if not more so, then building the biceps. Regular pauses to take deep breaths will result in a natural calming of the body. Over time this will become a habit. Reinforcing the habit will increase the likelihood that when pausing to take in the present moment, particularly in a stressful situation, we will feel empowered because we have a choice. We can choose to breathe and aid ourselves in the biological process of calming the nervous system that those deep breaths provide rather than simply act or react.

Pay attention. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Sit still. Focus.

Let’s take a moment to pause. Sitting still in our seat, let's take a few deep breaths together. In through the nose and out through the mouth. Allow theses breathes to help your body be calm and still. Bring your attention to how you are feeling right now. Become aware of any feelings, thoughts or sensation, without judging or trying to change them, just focus on your breath.

Same objectives. Different delivery. How do you feel about the commands listed above through the lens of mindfulness? Imagine using this approach with the children in your life, your students and yourself. Isn’t it worth the practice to create the desired result, for both parties, without inadvertently increasing the negative effects on mental health?

We don’t know what we don’t know, but once we know better, we can do better.


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